Social and Pastoral BulletinNo. 87Dec. 15, 1998


Masakawa Nobuo (Claretian priest worker)
Before I came to live in Kamagasaki I took part in a program conducted by an institution specialized in the rehabilitation of alcoholic addicts. Before that, I could not see anything else but problems of will power of those people. Nevertheless, my awareness changed when I realized that the same "cry" of those people had also become my own...

I thought that their cry was: "Let me be myself". Their cries meant to me something like this: "I'm not alive. I'm not myself. I'm tired of playing the role of somebody else. I want to be myself". In coming to Kamagasaki, my interest concentrated on the cries I could hear from practically all those with whom I was involved.
Actual Economic Situation and the Homeless

I started to live in Kamagasaki from 1994. The Japanese bubble economy had already collapsed and the homeless were rapidly increasing in Kamagasaki and its surroundings. Five years have passed since then, and there are no signs of improvement; on the contrary, unemployment has already reached the worst stage in the postwar period, and workers from every yoseba around the country gather in Kamagasaki looking for jobs. Besides this, the fact is that new homeless people have increased in such manner that they are not only in Kamagasaki but are now spread all over Osaka.

According to statistics gathered by Osaka city last November, there were at least 8,500 homeless in Osaka city alone, although their supporters consider the number not to be lower than 15,000.
The Life of the Homeless

Those homeless who lead a somehow stable life in tents put up in public parks, always exposed to forceful removal, make their living collecting still useful trash and copper wire by bicycle or gathering cardboard boxes and aluminum cans in a flat car.

The ones without a fixed living place pass the nights in building entrances or arcades. During the day you can see them looking intently for lost coins, going around vending machines or just walking along the streets with the same purpose. Some among them buy a cheap ticket for the belt line and get off at every station to pick up daily newspapers and magazines to sell them on the road to earn their living. Most of the homeless people eat the out-dated lunch food thrown away by the super-markets. If they are patient and have enough spiritual strength to line up for the soup kitchen they are sure they can get food. The reality now is that over a thousand people line up every day looking for food.

When they are brought by ambulance to a hospital they receive goods from their companions; some of them make their living by racketeering and even some among them earn money by homosexual activities.

Before getting to know these lads, I had never before the experience that "to eat" was so closely related with life itself. I never saw any of them drive away the doves or sparrows that flew down with some food in their mouths. Will the reason be that, they consider the birds like themselves, unable to survive unless they squeeze something into their stomachs?
One person told me: "In order to survive, I did something that neither dogs nor cats will ever do." In reality, each one, forced to be homeless for quite different reasons, is compelled to lead a life s/he can afford.

Among the people living in Kamagasaki one can observe many realities, like persons attacking other homeless supposed to be their own companions, or street thieves, called "shinogi", who inflicting serious wounds or leaving other people half-dead, stay their hunger by robbing them of their valuables.

Lessons Learned From Each One

An old man told me once: "Persons can find some solution to their pain or itchiness by putting their hand on that part of their body.
Nothing can be done when a person is lonely." Although I started to visit him often, he could never recover from his loneliness and a few years later he passed away.

Those homeless who lead a somehow stable life in tents put up in public parks, always exposed to forceful removal, make their living collecting still useful trash and copper wire by bicycle or gathering cardboard boxes and aluminum cans in a flat car.

After that, we decided to build a community in Kamagasaki and looked around for various possibilities. One of ours, a man of a few words, realized the fact that, the institutions established in the town to provide emergency assistance, would not allow people drinking alcohol use their facilities, due to difficulties in supervising them. In one of our meetings he shared that with us: "Although a sheep is weak she feels happy being together with the other 99. The unhappiness of one sheep is to be alone without companions." We, then, made the decision that our way of life should be not to have an institution, but to look for those lonely sheep.

This brother of ours went to meet the alcoholic and learned from them how they made their living, by collecting rough trash which could be recycled. Then, he started to live like them going around at night collecting thrown away goods, together with them.
As for myself, I made a group of three companions. One of them was a weak young person who was always afraid because he had been attacked by robbers. The other one was a lonely elder who could not afford to go back home because it was far away and he did not have any money.

The means I thought suitable to them to survive had to be something they themselves could do and we selected to do the work the young man had been doing up to now: to collect cardboard boxes. 1 kilo sold for 5 yen, but now is only 3 yen. Borrowing a flat car (rear car), three of us had to walk a whole day to gather 200 kilos of boxes that will earn just 1,000 yen.

After a while we thought about efficiency and selected different activities. The elder person selected to collect aluminum cans, because that was most bearable for him, and the young person and myself selected to collect thrown away re-usable goods pulling the flat car. I did it at day time and he went out at night. Early mornings three of us started selling collected goods on the street. Following their wishes, we divided the income in three equal parts, and I took care of all the savings.

After 6 months, the elder person had saved 19,000 yen and bought a one-way ticket to Okinawa, his native place. Again, 3 months later, the young one decided to leave Kamagasaki in order to go back home. Before leaving for home he told me: "Before coming to Kamagasaki I lived without being myself."

It is very rare that a person goes back home from Kamagasaki and it is delightful that people do it, but what really gave me joy was not so much that the young man returned home, but that he realized who himself was. Nevertheless, I could not hide my anxiety when sending him off. The reason was that, in spite of the fact that he found himself, unless the environment he is going to changes, he will have to start a real fight to acquire fit living conditions where he can survive. After three months my worries became a reality.

Playing the role of a different person, he does not have the skillfulness of living a life of somebody different from himself. No matter how weak or disgraceful he is, how often he disappoints others, he can only live by being himself. After dying to himself once in Kamagasaki, he recovered a new life and was able to return home, but the only option left to him to be able to survive, as he himself is, is to leave home again. To accomplish this, he will throw away everything needed to lead a human life, but there is no other choice.

He was to return again to Kamagasaki. People say that Kamagasaki is heaven. Maybe it is true for those who need a shelter, because from the point of view that others do not care about you, people feel relieved as if they are allowed to remain unnoticed there. In fact, the Japanese system of values which drives out the weak to Kamagasaki is once more aiming at them. The place is not a heaven ready to warmly accept the young person, instead it is a place where the right of the strongest triumphs.

Ending Conclusion

Living in Kamagasaki, the question hanging heavily in my mind is: "Why did they have to come to this place?". In the background of the "cries" of the people coming here looking for jobs, one can observe structures that do not accept persons as they are, that do not allow a person to appear as s/he is. There is a demand for personal conversion of my own value system which is supporting such structures, in order to rescue the weak.
The young person, I mentioned above, continues his fight to find a place, different from Kamagasaki, to live there as himself.